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A Conservative Challenge

Gay and lesbian rabbis and their supporters question the movement's don't-ask-don't-tell policy.

by Julie G Fax

January 16, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Rabbi Benay Lappe had been out of the closet for years. She appeared on "Oprah" and taught at a gay synagogue in New York, her colleagues and students at Milken Community High School in Los Angeles knew -- she even had a chapter included in an anthology titled "Lesbian Rabbis" (Rutgers University Press, 2001).

So she was pretty sure that the Midwestern Solomon Schechter Conservative middle school that had offered her a position to teach Talmud this past fall knew she was a lesbian, but she wanted to confirm that the principal knew before she signed on the dotted line. He said it wouldn't be a problem.

But the next day, the school's rabbinic adviser called her and rescinded the offer.

Lappe took a job teaching at a public school and is also teaching as a rabbi at a number of venues.

"Schools feel secure saying 'we can fire queer teachers because the Conservative movement lets us do that.' The movement's policy perpetuates discrimination at the institutional level and it cuts off the kind of debate and discussion that should be happening," Lappe said.

That debate over whether to ordain gay rabbis is churning again, and it is one of the most difficult and potentially divisive issues facing Conservative Judaism. Some Conservative leaders predict that it could sunder the movement, pitting against each other those who believe the Torah was never meant to be used to champion unethical discrimination and those who believe that in this case Jewish law differs from contemporary ethics.

In Conservative Judaism, the embrace of modernity is tethered to a commitment to conserve halacha (Jewish law), and a change this big -- one which requires reinterpreting a biblical law prohibiting homosexual sex -- will no doubt ripple through the movement internally and can effect how Conservative Judaism relates to Orthodoxy and Reform.

"There is no doubt that such a step would fracture the movement, and in a very severe way," JTS Chancellor Ismar Schorsch told The Washington Post. "If you want to see the end of the Conservative movement, that's the step to take now."

But others say those predictions are exaggerated, just as they were when the movement began ordaining women in 1985. While a few rabbis and congregations left, overall Judaism was enriched, they point out.

With the definition of Conservative Judaism in the spotlight -- coupled with the intensity usually generated by any discussion of homosexuality -- the movement finds itself squirming uncomfortably through a conversation many would rather not have.

"I think this is such the wrong subject for our movement to be discussing and debating," said one local Conservative rabbi who asked not to be named. "It's lose-lose. It's not where our energies need to be focused right now. I believe there is a place for this discussion in Reform Judaism, and we need to leave the current policy alone."

That the conversation was in many ways generated by the media does not help matters. The movement has been heavily scrutinized since earlier this month when The Forward newspaper reported that Judy Yudof, president of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, plans to submit a question to the Rabbinic Assembly's (RA) law committee reopening the question of whether to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis and whether rabbis should officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies.

The committee, a group of 25 rabbis that meets four times a year to issue teshuvot (responsa) on matters of Jewish law, last looked at the issue in 1992, when it published a consensus statement that said the movement welcomes gays into its congregations and communities, and that while there were to be no witch hunts, "avowed" gay or lesbian individuals cannot be admitted into the rabbinic schools or ordained. The statement also said Conservative rabbis should not officiate at commitment ceremonies -- though a rabbi cannot be expelled for doing so -- and that individual institutions could decide whether to hire homosexuals as youth leaders, teachers or synagogue lay leaders.

That consensus statement, contentious at the time, left much up in the air -- such as what it means for congregations to welcome gays and lesbians into the community, and how to implement what amounts to a don't-ask-don't-tell policy at the two seminaries: the University of Judaism (UJ) in Los Angeles and the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York.

In the decade since then, several rabbis have been ferreted out of both JTS and the RA, numerous potential Conservative rabbinic candidates have chosen the Reform movement and some rabbis -- possibly 20 or 30 -- have begun performing commitment ceremonies. At the same time, students at both UJ and JTS have been agitating for change.

Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the RA, believes that the reopening of the debate was inevitable, and he believes it reflects well on the movement. "The Conservative movement seriously takes under consideration issues of halacha," he said. "This may be another one of those instances where the movement itself grapples with a difficult halachic subject and tries to arrive at a decision that makes sense. I don't know what will happen next, but to me that is the spirit of what is taking place."

While the debate has international implications, in many ways it is focused in Los Angeles. Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of UJ, and Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at UJ, are the two strongest voices hammering for change.

As the vice chair of the RA's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, Dorff may be the next chairman when Rabbi Kassel Abelson steps down in March.

Dorff and Artson are at odds with powerful figures in the movement, such as Abelson and Schorsch, who would like to maintain the status quo.

Perhaps because of that dynamic, UJ has developed a reputation as the school to go to if one is either gay or cares deeply about such issues.

"If anybody wants to go to school at JTS, they have to live very closeted lives that are very self-demeaning," said Rabbi J.B. Sacks-Rosen, one of only a few openly gay Conservative rabbis, who until June had served Temple Shaarei Torah in Aracadia for seven years. "Those who don't want to live in those terrible ways go to L.A,. where everyone knows who is gay but officially won't admit to it."

In fact, the law committee, which could take up to a year to answer Yudof's question, may offer various halachic alternatives. One possible result is that JTS and UJ would have different admission policies.

One Southern California rabbi, "Rabbi C," who said she realized she was a lesbian in her last year of the ordination program at UJ, was able to graduate UJ.

"There was enormous struggle and enormous tension, because there was this sense that being a rabbi is about acting with integrity and I found myself in a place where I wasn't supposed to be, where by the rules they didn't want to ordain me, and yet I had already invested years of my life, not to mention thousands of dollars in this, and I loved it and I was good at it," she said.

She told numerous colleagues and faculty members, but officially kept the information from the dean until after ordination. During the job interview process, she also kept the information quiet, but she did tell the head rabbi where she was hired before she started work.

He suggested that she let the congregants get to know her before she revealed herself.

"It's a soul-deadening experience to live your life in the closet, especially when you are trying to do spiritual work," she said. "When you are constantly editing yourself, withholding pieces of your core identity and who you are, you are building a wall around your heart."

Like many other semi-closeted clergy, Rabbi C's career is at the mercy of a murky, somewhat schizophrenic policy.

The RA does not admit openly gay rabbis who were ordained after 1994. Those who are already members, whether they are "avowed" or closeted, are full members and, according to Meyers, afforded the same privileges.

But Dorff says he knows of at least one rabbi who was not allowed to use the placement procedures.

Sacks-Rosen, who was ordained in 1986 and had a commitment ceremony in 1991, had no problem using the procedures and getting placed. But, he says, the atmosphere within the movement at a professional level is oppressive.

At a Conservative educational conference he had his life and his livelihood threatened. At RA conferences there are rabbis who refuse to shake his hand, and he once was standing next to another rabbi who deliberately fired off a "fag joke," Sacks-Rosen said.

"My personal experience has been that the Jewish community and the Conservative movement have not been a safe place for gays and lesbians. But I think that has begun to change on a grass-roots level," Sacks-Rosen said.

Lappe said she sees growing lay acceptance. At the school that fired her, a large group of parents and students have launched a campaign to establish an anti-discrimination policy.

Lappe, one of the first and most outspoken openly gay Conservative rabbis, has gone head-to-head with the movement on several occasions.

Acting on an anonymous tip, the dean of JTS summoned her three days before her ordination demanding to know if she was in a lesbian relationship. After a two-hour face-off, and the threat that she would not be ordained if she either acknowledged that she was a lesbian or refused to answer his questions, she denied the truth and was ordained. A few years later, the RA tracked her town and intimated that she could be expelled.

The matter was dropped after Dorff sent an affidavit to the committee saying that the consensus statement was meant to preclude exactly these types of witch hunts.

Dorff has been at the center of this issue for the last decade. He was an author of the consensus statement and headed a committee that studied human sexuality, including the question of homosexuality.

Dorff's views have become more strident since then, partially because his daughter has since come out as a lesbian.

He and Artson have wrestled with the core halachic issue, authoring separate teshuvot during the 1992 process.

Both hold that Leviticus 20:13, which says that a man who lies with a man commits an abomination, needs to be interpreted through the lens of current information.

Artson asserts that the verse in Leviticus never meant to refer to loving, monogamous homosexual relationships, which didn't exist in the ancient world. Rather, it refers to promiscuous, oppressive or cultic homosexual practices, and should continue to refer exclusively to those practices.

Dorff argues that the verse must be reinterpreted with the current knowledge that in the vast majority of cases, one does not choose his or her sexual orientation.

"Whatever Leviticus was prohibiting was assuming that a person had the ability to do otherwise, because if you don't have the ability to do otherwise it doesn't make logical or legal sense to prohibit it. If I would say 'Don't breath for four hours,' it makes no sense because you don't have that ability," Dorff explained.

Both Dorff and Artson come to the conclusion that what Leviticus forbade was not committed homosexual relationships, and thus, they contend, the only obstacle to sanctifying a gay relationship is a human obstacle, not a divine or religious one.

That logic, they say, refutes the oft-heard contention that gays and lesbians should not be ordained because they do not personify the Jewish ideal of marriage and family.

"If we do commitment ceremonies and if we encourage them to have children, then they are fulfilling the same ideal we have for straights. The problem arises only because we haven't done commitment ceremonies and haven't encouraged them to have children, but that's our fault," Dorff said.

Artson points out the gay couples who care what the law committee and the Conservative movement say are, by definition, committed to Torah values.

"So are these couples any less ethical or valuable than straight couples? I do not believe so," Artson said.

Many synagogue rabbis find themselves occupying more of a middle ground. While some say it is not an important issue to their congregants because it hasn't come up, others are happier to see it naturally evolve -- for gay members to gradually become part of the community, and to deal with the issues as they arise.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis, rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and an elder statesman of the movement, has taken a more proactive stance, reaching out to gays and offering family membership to gay couples.

Schulweis bristles at the oft-heard accusations that Judaism is simply caving to societal norms by affording gays equal status.

"Morality comes from reading the tradition in its entirety -- not singling out particular verses or particular laws. It comes from highlighting the ethical rationale behind the laws, including the many interpretations of law, and it comes from wisdom, Jewish experience and history," Schulweis said.

The movement has reinterpreted biblical law, for instance, to allow a cohen (priest) to marry a divorcee or a convert.

"The point is do you believe Judaism is an evolutionary tradition or do you believe that it is merely a quotational religion? Do you believe that all you have to do is say this is what happened in the past, or do you say the rabbis today are trained to make decisions based upon their understanding of the tradition?" Schulweis said.

But halachic change is only one obstacle to overcome.

"I think the halacha is flexible enough to accommodate such changes," said Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills. "The question is how these changes are made and whether Conservative Jews and the Conservative community will ultimately be comfortable with such changes."

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